Helen Keller's jealous pet monkey and other finds in Perkins' newest archive collection

The new set of handwritten notes, photographs and more shines an informal light on the life of Perkins School for the Blind’s most famous alum

Robert Chaney, dressed in a suit, stands in a yard with a monkey on his shoulder.

The photo of Robert Chaney with Helen Keller's monkey was taken outside Keller's home in Forest Hills, New York.

February 15, 2019

Helen Keller’s pet monkey, Mame, was the protective type.

The Chaney family, close friends of Keller’s, described it as such anyway, capturing its vigilance in a note they sent Keller while she traveled and they filled in as simian caretakers.

“Mame would not let anyone come near my father,” wrote young Barbara Anne Chaney in an undated message inscribed on the back of a photograph depicting her father Robert with the watchful monkey perched on his shoulders. “Jealous.”

The photo, which shines an informal light on Keller’s personal life, is part of a new collection of handwritten notes, photographs, newspaper clippings, hardcover books and more that was recently gifted to Perkins School for the Blind’s Archives. The “Robert R. Chaney Helen Keller Collection” specifically documents the friendship Chaney, his wife Thelma and their daughter Barbara Anne had with Keller, her companion Polly Thompson and teacher Anne Sullivan. And in keeping with the photo of jealous Mame, the rest of the collection similarly offers a rare glimpse at the public figure’s private life.

“This collection is interesting because it’s not about Keller as a kid, her learning to speak, or that water pump moment,” said Jen Hale, archivist at Perkins. “That stuff is amazing, of course, but there’s so much more to her and her life and this collection highlights some of that.”

Among 2.5 linear feet that includes one large manuscript box and nine books, the newest collection includes an undated group photo of Keller, Thompson, Sullivan, Chaney and a few unidentified friends; elsewhere, there’s a Valentine’s Day card from Sullivan (written by Polly Thompson, fulfilling scribe duties) to Barbara Anne (dated 1933); and on a more melancholy note, there’s even a 1936 letter from Thompson to Robert Chaney describing the events leading up to and after Sullivan’s death.

“[W]hat a voice Teacher has left behind her,” wrote Thompson from Scotland, where she and Keller fled for rest and reprieve from incessant media inquiry following Sullivan’s passing. “Helen and I will carry on with our work for the blind and try to do as Teacher would wish us to do. And perhaps through work the ache may soften.”

Those moments of vulnerability and candor run through the collection, enabling viewers to wade through the many historic moments in Keller’s life and get a sense of her day-to-day.

“So much of the collection is not about business. It’s home life,” added Susanna Coit, research assistant in Perkins’ archives and research library. “It’s very humanizing.”

The “Chaney Collection” builds on Perkins’ archive’s already expansive selection of Helen Keller material. Keller herself attended Perkins as a student from 1888 to 1892, where she studied and became enamored with the school’s embossed book library. “I was in my own country,” she said of that time.

As for the newest collection, the digitized portion, including photographs, handwritten notes and accompanying transcriptions, is currently viewable online.  

Learn more about Helen Keller.